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Young Americans See Promising Path for Future Climate Litigation

For half a century, young people in the United States have played an active role in ongoing efforts to address climate change. Moving into 2024, young climate litigants find themselves in a promising position: They recently saw progress at both the state and federal levels and are now poised to go head-to-head with the EPA. In late 2023, youth climate litigation saw two major successes. 

First, on December 29, 2023, the United States District Court for the District of Oregon released a highly-anticipated ruling in the case of Juliana v. United States (Case No. 6:15-CV-01517). The court granted in part and denied in part the government's motion to dismiss. Juliana was brought by 21 young people on behalf of themselves and "future generations," presenting the question of whether the U.S. "Constitution guarantees the right to a stable climate system that can sustain human life." In their second amended complaint, the plaintiffs sought both injunctive and declaratory relief, maintaining that the federal government had violated young people's rights by subsidizing fossil fuel extraction and consumption while knowing that these actions would have irreversible environmental consequences. More specifically, plaintiffs alleged violations of the Fifth Amendment, Ninth Amendment, and Public Trust Doctrine.

In its December ruling, the District Court allowed two of these arguments to proceed: (i) a claim that the government's actions and inactions relating to the climate system violated the Fifth Amendment Due Process Clause; and (ii) a claim that the government violated the Public Trust Doctrine by failing to take affirmative steps to protect the country's natural resources. The court shut down the possibility of injunctive relief, but found that declaratory relief—and even a partial remedy—could supply the redress sought by the young climate advocates.

However, the ruling did more than just allow the case to proceed; it sent a clear message that this court at least believes that judges should not shy away from environmental litigation of this type. Judge Ann Aiken referred to climate change as "the great emergency of our time" and found that "the right to a climate system that can sustain human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society." She also stressed the importance of courts fulfilling their judicial duties in cases such as this one, "over which trial courts have jurisdiction, [and] where plaintiffs have stated a legal claim." In other words, the court in Juliana took the position that climate change litigation is no different than any other litigation when it comes to the duties of the judiciary. 

The government responded to the Juliana order by filing a motion that asks the court to stay further proceedings while the government seeks writ of mandamus to have the case reviewed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The youth plaintiffs responded, on February 1, 2024, with an opposition to the motion, highlighting the government's prior efforts to "roadblock" the case: fourteen attempts to stay the litigation and six petitions for writ of mandamus. The response accused the government of singling out this case by young Americans due to "some sort of political vendetta [that] should not be sanctioned by any court of law." Judge Aiken has not indicated how she intends to rule on this motion, but on February 8, a case number was assigned by the Ninth Circuit (Case No. 24-684). On February 29, 2024, the Ninth Circuit ordered the real parties in interest to file an answer within 21 days.

Second, in response to indications in 2023 that courts at the state and federal levels were receptive to youth climate litigation arguments, young Americans are building on this momentum by suing the EPA. On December 10, 2023, 18 young people from California filed Genesis B. v. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California (Case No. 2:23-CV-10345). The complaint says that children, as "the most vulnerable, unrepresented, powerless people in the Nation," are disproportionately harmed by climate pollution. It goes on to claim that the EPA played an "intentional" role in the evolution of the climate crisis and alleges various constitutional violations, including a violation of the right to life.

Along with this complaint, the plaintiffs submitted a notice of related cases, arguing that the Genesis and Juliana situations are "closely related" enough to warrant being heard by the same judge to avoid "substantial duplication of labor." While the EPA has not yet responded to the complaint, it did file a December 12 opposition to this notice, arguing that Genesis is a distinct case that "must be assigned [to a judge] at random." The court agreed. The parties have stipulated to a March 15, 2024, deadline for the government's responsive pleading.

In Juliana, the court said that "the judicial branch of government can no longer 'abdicat[e] the responsibility to apply the rule of law'" in environmental cases. This ruling cited Montana's Held decision. In turn, the Genesis B. complaint cited both Held and Juliana. As young people continue to actively pursue climate litigation, they (and their counsel) will seek to further develop this legal framework to pave the road for similar cases in the future. As long as courts at the state and federal district levels continue to remain receptive to this type of litigation—and there is nothing to indicate that they will soon change their tune, at least in the jurisdictions where the cases are being filed—then the litigation landscape is likely to remain ripe for similar cases seeking to address climate change.

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